Last fall I heard about the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness. Established in 2009, the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness contains 66,000 acres and is part of the larger Dominguez-Escalante Conservation Area. Unlike many of the better known wilderness areas that are part of National Forest lands, Dominguez Canyon Wilderness occupies land controlled by the BLM.
While the Rockies get all the glory in Colorado, the far western part of the state features a much different landscape. The terrain is more typical of Utah, just a few miles to the west. This area has a lower elevation than the High Rockies. While it can get quite cold and snow still falls, the intense sunshine moderates the area and snow never lingers too long.
The Dominguez Canyon Wilderness is located between Grand Junction and Delta, Colorado. The area begins at the Gunnison River on the east and rises to the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west. As the name implies, the area is comprised of a series of canyons that are centered on Big and Little Dominguez Canyons.
I only heard of the area last fall. Then there was a snippet in Backpacker Magazine mentioning the area as a winter destination. The description was fairly vague, but mentioned a 35 mile loop connecting both canyons. What the trip did offer according to the snippet was a scenic hike featuring red walled canyons, ancient petroglyphs, good water sources, and the opportunity to see wildlife- including Colorado's largest concentration of Desert Bighorn Sheep.
I put the area on my list of future trips. Over the winter I got the map for the area and did some research since I knew little of the place. While there are a handful of trip reports and descriptions on backpacking the two canyons as a loop, generally the information wasn't very thorough. Most people hiked the length of Big Dominguez before cutting across the high terrain between the canyons. Usually they traversed the high terrain between the two canyons before descending into the last 5 or 6 miles of Little Dominguez before closing the loop.
There were a couple common theme among these trip reports. First, the high terrain between the canyons featured tough route finding. Although old trails and roads are shown on the map, they have fallen into disuse and are often not physically visible. The other issue people ran into was the descent into Little Dominguez Canyon. With no trails visible, the descent into the canyon isn't obvious. Route finding down into the canyon is sketchy at best, involving downclimbing on somewhat technical terrain.
With longer days and comfortable temperatures, I set three days aside to backpack the loop in late April. After looking at the map, I decided on a longer alternative that would connect Forest Service roads and trails on the Uncompahgre Plateau between the ends of the two canyons. Based on mileage on the BLM map of the area, the Forest Service website, and mapping software, my loop was in the 46-47 mile range.
With a promising forecast, I headed to the area on Sunday, April 22nd. I began from the Bridgeport Trailhead about 950AM. The start of the hike travels a little over a mile along the Union Pacific tracks before actually entering the wilderness. It's not the prettiest start but it goes by quickly. The Gunnison River is flowing just below the tracks. Even with the train cars along the way, it's easy to get distracted by the views looking upstream into Escalante Canyon.
|The first mile along the train tracks|
|Canyon wall across the river|
Soon enough I reached the foot bridge that crosses the Gunnison River. This is the low point of the trip at just over 4700 feet in elevation. After following the river a short distance, it soon turns away from it. There are a few visitor signs at this point with the history and nature of the area.
|Bridge crossing the Gunnsion|
|The Gunnison River from the bridge|
|Entering the Wilderness|
|View up the Gunnison|
As soon as you pass the signs, you encounter quite a bit. Remnants of an old mining or homesteading site are right along the trail. On the opposite side of the trail, where Big Dominguez Creek flows, there is a waterfall. The waterfall looks like it may be the site of an old dam but is pretty nonetheless. The red canyon walls are immediately visible and a constant companion the entire time in Big Dominguez.
|Rock formation at the end of Big Dominguez|
|Waterfall near the start|
|Cactus patch in front of old corral|
|Near the beginning of Big Dominguez|
|Old stable barely visible in front of rock|
The Big Dominguez Trail is heavily traveled, particularly at its lower reaches. The trail is fairly wide and easy to follow. There was a fair amount of hiker traffic on this warm Sunday morning consisting of both day hikers and backpackers and even a few horses. Although it isn't entirely obvious, the turn off for Little Dominguez is less than a mile from the river. There is a faint old road heading toward Little Dominguez, but it is easy to miss from the main trail.
|The cottonwoods were starting to get leaves|
|Random rock in the bottom of the canyon|
|The Big Dominguez Trail is well worn early|
|Common look throughout the canyon|
Even though the temperatures were only supposed to be in the mid 70s, it was already quite warm. There isn't really any shade in the lower canyons and the sun is intense. It probably also felt warmer than it was because the last two days at home were damp with cold rain and snow.
|The lower canyon has a desert look|
|I enjoyed the view looking back down the canyon|
The entire hike through the canyon travels below the red walls. Every turn in the canyon offers a different look at the walls and each area is sculpted differently. While some sections are plain vertical walls, other sections have spires that stand a few feet from the actual walls.
|Close up of canyon walls|
|Nice coloration on the walls|
|Greenery near the creek|
|The trail went through this and the hole|
was at least twice my height
|Another cactus in bloom|
|An alcove in the canyon wall|
|The route ahead|
|Spire along the canyon wall|
|The canyon bottom was flat early on|
|It was warm in the open areas|
|Spires often were part of the wall|
Only a few miles into the hike you reach the first petroglyphs. There is a sign along the trail explaining the significance of the archaeological site. The bulk of the petroglyphs are on a large rock just to the left of the trail and easy to spot with the sign. The more faint rock art is described as archaic while some of the less worn petroglyphs are more recent from the Utes. A short distance up the trail are a few other spots with petroglyphs on the right side of the trail. Unfortunately, some people decided to scratch their names onto the rocks as well. Pay attention after passing the main panels, I spotted a few more places with rock art. There are also rock shelters along the trail that may also date back to the Utes that hunted and inhabited the area.
|Part of the main panel of rock art|
|These are older "archaic" petroglyphs|
|A well defined petroglyph|
|Just up from the main panel|
|The horses indicate Ute drawings|
|Not sure what these are supposed to be|
|Drawing higher up in the canyon|
|Rock shelter with unfortunate modern|
|This rock shelter was probably used by modern|
man as it was near a mining site
After passing the main petroglyphs, the next historical features you pass are mining remnants. There is another rock shelter that appeared to be used by a mining operation. There are old mining implements and equipment left in the area. Just downhill is an old, sealed mine.
|Mining relic near rock shelter|
Since this is a designated wilderness, there is minimal signage. Other than the initial signage when you leave the river, there is only one other sign. This comes about 6 miles from the trailhead and marks a trail that leaves the canyon toward Cactus Park. Up until this point I saw a fair amount of people. After this point I only saw a few.
|A rare cairn along the trail|
|Big Dominguez Creek|
After the Cactus Park turnoff, the trail becomes a little more rugged. A series of washes flow toward Big Dominguez Creek. The trail drops into these washes and climbs back out. The fairly mellow trail is more rocky in the washes. Although still fairly easy to follow, the tread isn't always 100% obvious as it negotiates the washes.
|Looking down canyon|
|Interesting rock formations|
|Nice rock formation|
I was happy for the rocky sections. Just a few minutes before I departed the trailhead, a group of three horses and riders left before me. They were occasionally within sight but never too close. I would stop to look at the scenery or take photos and they would mover further ahead. As I reached the rockier terrain that is slower travel for horses, I got closer to them. The two in the rear rode close together and were quiet. The woman in the lead was further away from them. She also was yelling back constantly to her companions, often complaining. I was glad when I could finally pass by them in the rougher terrain. I quickly got out of ear shot, but could hear the lead rider yapping for several minutes before losing them completely where the rocky sections slowed down the horses.
|Close up of the rock formation above|
|A stretch of canyon wall|
|A lone rock|
Between the Cactus Park turnoff and Big Dominguez Campground, I only saw a couple groups. Big Dominguez Creek was always close to the trail. In this section, the trail stays further away and out of sight of the creek for much of the distance. Further up the canyon, there is more trees offering occasional shade. Mostly the trees are pinyon and juniper with an occasional ponderosa.
|A random tower near the end of Big Dominguez Canyon|
|Beaver activity higher in the canyon|
|Trees in the upper canyon|
While I didn't see any of the Desert Bighorn Sheep the area is known for, I saw some wildlife. Various lizards are a constant companion along the trail. They are constantly darting across the trail. I saw numerous birds of prey, including a falcon that landed high on the canyon walls, possibly nesting.
|The most photogenic lizard of the hike|
|One of many lizards|
After 14 miles, I reached the end of the Big Dominguez Trail. The trail leaves the wilderness and BLM land and enter the Uncompahgre National Forest. The trail ends at a dirt forest service road and the Big Dominguez Campground. It was not quite 4PM and I wasn't ready to stop for the day. I still had at least 4 hours of daylight left.
Two other backpackers were going back down the Big Dominguez. I chatted with them a few minutes. They originally planned to do the same loop I was hiking. Because of a time restraint and uncertainty of conditions and distance to Little Dominguez, they decided to return down Big Dominguez.
Big Dominguez Campground is primitive. There are several campsites with fire rings and picnic tables. There are pit toilets by the parking lot. Other than the Big Dominguez Creek, there is no treated water or services. From the campground, I had at least 14 miles of travel before my next certain water source.
Since it was my last water source, I decided to cook my dinner at the campground before moving on.
While I waited for my dinner, I filled my water bottle and bladder to capacity. While eating, another backpacker set up camp at a site across the creek. While finishing dinner, I chatted with the other backpacker a few minutes before continuing on foot.
The route between Big and Little Dominguez Canyons travels lightly used forest service roads. Heading into the roads I was not sure what to expect. Even though the roads are marked on the map, I didn't know if they would be marked at the intersections, or even if all the roads existed. It's not uncommon for for forest service roads or trails to fall into disuse and eventually be overtaken by nature.
The first road I followed was part of the Tabguache Trail. The Tabguache is a long distance mountain bike route and was well marked and on a nicely graded dirt road at this section. I passed a couple intersections and found that they were all well marked. The Tabguache climbed steadily from the campground for three miles gaining 1200 vertical feet to an elevation of 8300 feet. With the elevation came some nice views. To the north I could see Book Cliffs, north of Grand Junction. I had glimpses into Big Dominguez Canyon from high above its rim. The Grand Mesa is a constant sight to the east and the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west.
|Big Dominguez Canyon from above|
|Another look into Big Dominguez|
|Book Cliffs in the distance|
I reached the signed junction for Forest Service Road 408.3A, my next leg. I followed this road to reach the Winter Camp Trail. I chose this route because it took me off the roads for three miles and was a touch shorter. This road stays high and travels along a few meadows. There were good camping options along it. There was even a stock pond that still had water. I don't think I would drink this water, even with a filter unless I was desperate since it looked pretty skunky. There were occasional views to the east of the West Elk Mountains.
After a mile and a half I reached the Winter Camp. I don't know the history, but there actually is an old cabin, the "Winter Camp" at this site. The cabin was locked and had some furnishings and still in decent shape. An old barn and corral next to it didn't hold up to time very well. There was a thermometer on the cabin. In the higher elevation, it was 55F. Just past the cabin, I saw the picket marking the start of the Winter Camp Trail.
|The Winter Camp|
The first 1/4 mile or so of the trail is easy to follow. Although there is no tread, the path is straightforward as it makes its way through the scrubby pinyon and juniper. The trail isn't so obvious after that. I followed what seemed to be the most logical route, a faint old track that has been reclaimed by nature. At best, the route looked like an ancient road that was now barely visible. The route made its way through a scrub forest and an occasional clearing. At times it would become more visible, but never for too long. I wasn't sure if I was on the actual trail or following cattle paths. It was obvious that this area was heavily used by cattle. At one point I passed an ancient sign advertising "No motorized traffic". This was the only possible clue that I may have been on the proper path.
|A nicer section of the Winter Camp Trail|
It was getting to the point where I need to consider stopping for the night. What little bit of path I was following came to a clearing. There was a well worn tread that looked like a possible cattle path going into the brush. The route otherwise ended. A short distance ahead, there also appeared to be another path that was wider but more overgrown. Unsure, I followed the cattle path since it was better worn.
Ten minutes on the cattle path brought me to a meadow. There was a stock pond and an old hitching post. At some point this area was used as a cattle camp. The trail ended quickly after the clearing. Another tread headed to another clearing with a stock pond but also ended. At this point it was obvious I should not have followed the tread. It was just a cattle path.
It was starting to get dark. The clearing made for a nice spot to camp. The stock pond was full of singing frogs. There was a nice ponderosa that was an excellent tree to hang a bear bag. The area was filled with bones however. I don't know if they butchered cows here at one time, or mountain lions picked off the weak as the cattle congregated in the grass near the stock pond. I wasn't too concerned either way and I fell asleep quickly.
I woke up in the middle of the night to find frost on the inside of my tent. My watch has a thermometer and I was surprised to see it was 28F in the tent. I was camping above 8000', more than 3000 feet higher than where I started in the morning. I slept comfortably in my 20F bag.
I broke camp in the morning around 720AM. After checking with my map, the other possible route in the last clearing that I didn't take looked logical. After a few minutes on that path, it became obvious that it was the right path. The route widened and became more trail-like at times. This was the first time that I was sure I was actually on the Winter Camp Trail. I soon reached the end of the Winter Camp Trail and could see the next Forest Service Road.
|This is a good section of the Winter Camp Trail|
|This is pretty typical of the Winter Camp Trail.|
Not easy to follow
|I was happy to see this sign at the end of the trail confirming I was on route.|
If I lost the Winter Camp Trail, I was prepared to make the bushwhack if necessary to the nearest Forest Service road. With a map and compass, it is fairly clear where to travel. If you are not comfortable with a map and compass or experienced in off trail travel, the roads would be a better option.
For the next 5.75 miles, I would follow dirt FS Roads 423 and 420. Both roads were pleasant walks on rarely used routes. The time went quickly on the roads. The scenery was pleasant looking into the Uncompahgre Plateau. My only company in the area was a few birds, including a red tail hawk that took off near a stock pond. At the end of FSR 420, I reached the Black Point Trail and done with the roads.
|Typical section of the road walk|
|Typical stock pond that I passed|
Between Big Dominguez Campground and the start of the Black Point Trail is a distance of 13+ miles. 10 miles follows rarely used roads and just over 3 miles followed the Winter Camp Trail. The confusion of the Winter Camp Trail can be avoided by following other roads with minimal distance added. I used the Trails Illustrated Map 147 (Uncompahgre Plateau North) to negotiate this section. All the roads are marked on the map and have pickets at each intersection with their numbers. Water is scarce between the canyons. I passed two stock ponds along the route plus the two stock ponds off route where I camped. Water on the map is not always there. The stock ponds are basically stagnant, oversized puddles. Although I have filtered water from worse, I wouldn't want to from these ponds unless it was dire. As of this writing, I could find no other reports of connecting Big Dominguez to Little Dominguez via Black Point.
|View across the Uncompahgre Plateau|
|The last stretch of road|
The Black Point Trail drops into Little Dominguez Canyon. Although somewhat overgrown, the route is obvious on the Black Point Trail. Eventually it reaches Little Dominguez Creek. After crossing the creek, the trail is faint but still visible.
|Looking into Little Dominguez Canyon|
|The start of the Black Point Trail|
|The Black Point Trail isn't hard to follow|
|The trail is still obvious although rough|
|Dropping into the canyon|
|The Black Point Trail continues to drop|
|The upper reaches of Little Dominguez Canyon|
I could not find any trip reports or descriptions for the trail in the upper reaches of Little Dominguez Canyon. The only information was that the trail is rarely traveled and may be difficult to follow. The Trails Illustrated map as well as the BLM's map for the area show a trail in Little Dominguez Canyon. This trail does not exist other than the occasional herd path. It is actually shown as suitable for horses on the map. I certainly wouldn't take any animal in here.
|Nice ponderosa and pinyon forest higher in Little Dominguez|
|The beginning of Little Dominguez started off nicely|
|The trail didn't last too long|
The faint trail I was following soon disappeared. Not only did it disappear, but it disappeared in thicket of willows. This was the theme for the next 10 or more miles. As far as getting lost, Little Dominguez Canyon is easy to negotiate. You are in a steep walled canyon with a creek running the distance through it. You aren't going to accidentally climb out of the canyon. Finding the path of least resistance on the other hand is not so easy.
|Getting into scrub oak as the trail ended|
|A faint herd path plowing through scrub oak|
|The path of least resistance sometimes has a lot of resistance|
Often the travel along the creek is flat. Unfortunately, nearly impassable thickets of willow often impede progress. Away from the creek, there isn't much relief. Scrub oak seems to dominate and is just as difficult to traverse as the willows. Logic would have you go around around the oak. This doesn't work. This takes you into a jumble of loose scrambling and scree on steep sidehills that crumbled from the walls of the canyon. Often cliffs impede progress above the vegetation. Hiking through here you will get jabbed, stabbed, scratched, poked, prodded, and penetrated by the vegetation.
|Away from the brush the terrain looked like this|
|Travel was slow in this terrain|
|Sometimes this was the best option|
|When possible I followed the creek|
|Easier travel along the creek|
Traveling through willows is brutal at best. I know I referenced it in past posts. At times, it's so thick you can't move your feet and get tripped up. Your clothing and pack get snagged. Within the willows are another brushy plant with thorns. They blend in with the willows and you don't realize they are there until they slide across your shins.
|The easy creekside travel ends in willows|
|The creek was usually a few feet wide so you|
could cross when necessary
Occasionally I found a herd path from previous hikers as I traveled. Nearly every path ended in nearly impenetrable brush. When I could, I followed the banks of the creek, but this eventually ended in brush or cliffs. Basically, I found the path of least resistance when I could. Then the travel would get tough and you have to pick your poison- willows, scrub oak, or loose jumbles of steep rock.
|Other spots the creek had cliffs along it|
There were stretches where I could avoid the obstacles. Pockets of pinyon or ponderosas were often free of brush. When I could follow the creek banks without brush, the walking was quite nice. Even in these tame sections, you had to keep your eye out to the ground as there was often a bit of cactus as ground cover.
|A good look at the canyon walls|
|No trail much of the canyon|
|Interesting dead tree|
|View down canyon|
Despite the rough travel, the upper reaches of Little Dominguez aren't all doom. The canyon is quite pretty. The entire length of the canyon is made of the same kind of red stone walls that make Big Dominguez. Unlike Big Dominguez, Little Dominguez is extremely remote. It's obvious very few people make there way this far up the canyon.
|Continuing down canyon|
|A wider section of Little Dominguez Canyon|
|The start of a spire?|
|One of many spires along the canyon walls|
|The scenery is always interesting|
With remoteness comes chances to spot wildlife. At one point I nearly stepped on a 4 foot long gopher snake. Birds of prey could often be seen flying above the canyon. Perhaps most odd was seeing ducks way up in the canyon. Even though the creek is often narrow enough to step across, there is an occasional wider pool with deeper water. I saw ducks in one of these pools.
|The snake stayed in place for the photo|
|A random bird of prey wing|
While the entire route is in the canyon, at times the creek drops into ravines within the canyon. At times I had to traverse through the bottom of the ravines, following the banks. At other times I had to climb up and around the ravines. Within these ravines, the creek often plummets and there are numerous small waterfalls and plunge holes. Traveling along the creek with the sound of the rushing water is always pleasant. I had my lunch stop at the end of one of these ravines. It was a good place to soak my feet and wipe off some of the trail dust and sweat.
|Potential swimming hole below a waterfall|
|The creek exiting a small ravine near my lunch spot|
|One of many small waterfalls|
|A closer look at the above waterfall|
|One of the more interesting falls in Little Dominguez|
|The same falls with the main canyon|
walls in the background
|I traveled through this section of narrow ravine,|
notice the different rock than the main canyon
|A small drop|
As you drop into the lower canyon, the terrain mellows, but not before reaching one last massive area of willows. There is an area that appears to have been dammed by beavers. The creek gets wide and the ground near it swampy. Once I got past this, the area between the canyon walls widens. Ahead I could see the canyon making a 90 degree turn to the north. This area passes a prominent canyon coming in from the north, presumably Poison Canyon on the map. This is also the general area many people drop into Little Dominguez on the more common route linking Big and Little Dominguez.
|Notice the lack of good route|
|Bones were pretty common along the route|
|These spires were crumbly sand|
|A spire along the main canyon wall|
|An arch above the creek, I couldn't really get to it for a better photo|
|A wide area of smooth rock along the creek|
From this point the trail became more consistent and easy to follow. It still occasionally disappeared, but it never lasted too long before finding it again. It was obvious this part of Little Dominguez saw more visitors. By now the brush was pretty well gone and it was more desert like again.
|A smaller side canyon|
|The point where Little Dominguez turns north|
|The trail became more consistent at this point|
|Now heading north in Little Dominguez|
|The lower portion of the canyon was more desert like|
My goal was to hike until about 7PM, giving me enough time to make a dinner and set up camp. A few minutes before 7PM, I was hiking close to the creek with good camping potential nearby. I could see a couple people near the creek ahead with a tent. It was the two backpackers I saw leaving Big Dominguez Campground the previous day. I chatted with them while I ate dinner. I set up my tent nearby.
|Pile of cow bones|
|The trail was visible most of lower Little Dominguez|
I was at least 3000 feet lower in elevation than my campsite the previous night. It was quite a bit warmer. I was able to keep my tent fly open. That is until a rain shower came by in the middle of the night. It was short lived however and everything was dry by morning.
|Home for the second night|
On the map, it states no camping in Lower Little Dominguez Canyon. It doesn't say where this no camping zone begins however. There are no signs signifying "no camping," either. I think part of this is due to a private property holding that was grandfathered in when the area became a Wilderness Study Area.
|Early on the third morning|
|Crossing Little Dominguez Creek|
|The lower canyon sees much more traffic|
|Morning sun hitting the canyon wall|
The next morning I was back on the trail about 720AM. I only had 5 or 6 miles to the trailhead. Not far from my campsite, I came across an old overgrown double track. I soon came within sight of another cabin. This is the Rambo Homestead. Billy Rambo was the owner of the private property within the Wilderness. He was allowed to maintain his property until his death despite the Wilderness designation. Apparently he lived here his entire life, living a hermit-like existence. His cabin, outbuilding, and homesteading implements still stand. I don't know the details but I think he died in the past few years. As far as I read, the land is still private at this time, so respect the private property and enjoy the homestead from a distance.
|The Rambo cabin|
|Apparently Rambo spent his whole life here|
|The cabin had a interesting backdrop|
From the homestead area, the trail and the old road occasionally overlap and intersect. The road has started to be reclaimed by nature. I came to an intersection with a very well worn trail. I was back on the Big Dominguez Trail. From the intersection, you can see the Gunnison River. It's a quick two mile hike back to the trailhead. I reached the trailhead about 920AM.
|There were lots of cows in the lower canyon|
|Old road track|
|Occasionally the trail faded but was easy to find again|
I hiked two full days, and a short third day. Like I said earlier, I determined this hike to be 46 miles and change based on the BLM map distances and mapping software. This was one of the more interesting backpacking trips I have been on for many reasons. Around a quarter of this hike consisted of bushwhacking. It was fairly intense bushwhacking at that. I have never done that much bushwhacking on a backpacking trip. I have never backpacked in this type of terrain with the canyons. Parts of the trip also had vague details before I started. Usually there's more info available before I backpack. While I have encountered all these circumstances on day hikes. A lot of it was new for a multiday backpacking trip.
|Nearing the end of Little Dominguez|
|The trail crossed the creek several times|
I really enjoyed this trip despite some of the rough sections. I don't really have a great desire to return to the upper reaches of Little Dominguez Canyon again. Little Dominguez is definitely a type 2 fun adventure. (Not so fun as it's happening but fun after the fact and something you like to tell stories about) I didn't have any rough weather on this trip and it was warm. This hasn't happened too often on my last handful of trips. One other note of interest: about a week after this trip, I was flipping through Backpacker Magazine. There was a retraction to the recommendation of this loop stating that Little Dominguez is a "heinous bushwhack". I won't disagree.
|Lots of green close to the creeks|
|Reaching the bridge at the end of the Wilderness|
As far as I can tell, there isn't much or any information on linking the two canyons the way I did. I probably wouldn't recommend backpacking the upper reaches of Little Dominguez if you don't have much experience or have never bushwhacked. There isn't a real trail for nearly 1/4 of the route. I probably would recommend an out and back to Big Dominguez Campground for someone without confidence in off trail travel or the inexperienced backpacker. I wouldn't recommend this trip in summer. There is little shade, especially in Big Dominguez and it can reach triple digits in summer. The Trails Illustrated Map is very useful for planning and negotiating this route. This BLM Map also has the route shown with much of the mileage within the Wilderness labeled, although is not accurate for navigation.
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